Where is the road calling you?
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For the first time in years we had re-discovered a feeling that had almost become embarrassingly foreign to us given our passion for travel. We would be entering a country we had never before visited with only the photos and stories of others to provide us with our own fantasy of what Myanmar held in store for us. The excitement building within me began to spread through my body after making our way through security and into the main lobby of the airport. Eager taxi touts yearned for our attention, trying desperately to recruit us in the most polite way we had experienced. Calmly we stepped to the counter of one of the money changers before I removed some of our finest hundred dollar bills from my money belt hidden beneath my shorts. To my amazement, two of my crisp, newer bills were rejected apologetically with the explanation they had been folded in the past, leaving the slightest of crease lines in the center.
The adorable, sincere and smiley woman behind the glass was far too genuine and kind to become upset with, leaving me to search quickly through the rest of my stash to find other bills worthy of their acceptance. It was a far cry from instances back in the States where I’d received change with bills crumpled, torn in half and re-taped together, peppered with graffiti and all but used as toilet paper only to exchange them with another vendor later in the day who accepted them without hesitation. We were immediately relieved knowing we had forced our bank back home to sift through piles of money as we carefully dissected them for such an occasion.
With a small amount of local currency we submitted to the persistent calls of the touts, allowing one who had waited semi-patiently to drive us into town. Within minutes of leaving the airport we knew we had entered a country we would thoroughly enjoy. The roads were paved but uneven and lacking any striping. Heavily used motorbikes cruised slowly around us as we drove through the dry, arid countryside, only to be replaced with an immediate influx of traffic and simple shops while entering into Mandalay. Horns blew with repetition, not as a means of expressing anger or impatience, but simply to alert other drivers to their presence. Nearly every intersection we entered was uncontrolled, leaving motorbikes, taxis, cars, buses, and all other forms of local transportation to converge into the center of the street in an unorganized pile, somehow moving as small groups and taking turns without frustration.
The cab slowed to a halt in front of a hotel we decided to inquire at first. A dark, dungeon-like room filled with the scents of mold and sewage from the private bathroom however convinced us to continue with our search. Lucky for us, the neighboring hotel provided a drastic improvement for a five dollar per night upgrade. Part of us choked at the idea of spending twenty-five dollars per night on a room having been spoiled throughout Southeast Asia and paying an average of ten or twelve and sometimes even less. But, we couldn’t argue the comfort of stepping into a proper hotel room complete with a mini-fridge, BATHTUB, and even a flat screen TV on the penthouse level with the greatest view of the city.
Having laid eyes on a room resembling an abandoned warehouse office harboring a toilet overgrown with a science experiment gone wrong where it met the chipped tile floor, the choice was almost made for us. After all, past experience has taught me sleeping in similar rooms can quite possibly replace the need for birth control. Although we can look the part of a hippie and often think like one, random short and curlies found near suspicious stains tend to make one a bit hesitant about allowing any orifice within striking distance of a stranger’s leftovers. More often than not, when forced to endure such conditions a peck on the lips while hiding in our sleep sheets to avoid contamination replaces any possibility of romance. Five extra dollars may have never been spent more wisely.
Rarely had a country sunk its teeth into us so deeply and quickly as Myanmar. Within minutes of strutting down the bustling streets to the sounds of honking horns while narrowly avoiding swerving traffic and playing the all too familiar game of “Frogger” while crossing the road, we were hooked. The chaos around us was equivalent to the lights of Las Vegas for others. The dirt and dust blanketing the entire city we welcomed with open arms as deep seeded memories surfaced from their usual resting places. A unique, intoxicating mix of Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and Laos had never seemed possible until that very moment. Our obsession with third world countries, it seemed, was about to increase exponentially.
With our adrenaline surging and curiosity peaked, we could hardly wait to begin exploring, opting for a hike up the 1720 steps at Mandalay Hill just before sunset for an amazing view of the city. A small amount of vendors dotted the stairs as we ascended, almost as content to receive a smile as a sale. Every step up reminded us why we always seem to lose weight when traveling far from home. Only once reaching the very top of the hill and gazing up a golden stupa towering over the city were we privy to the breathtaking site of Mandalay in its entirety, arriving well enough in advance for Jessie to initiate a highly anticipated monk chat with two teenage monks seeking to practice their English. It was hard to determine who enjoyed their simple yet incredibly enjoyable conversation more before spending the final moments of daylight watching the sun disappear on the horizon.
After such a great introduction to our time in Myanmar, we could hardly wait to begin exploring in and around the city. A boat destined for Mingun seemed the perfect way to start the following day after enjoying a proper breakfast at our incredibly nice hotel, complete with eggs, fried rice and noodles, fresh fruit, coffee, juice, and a variety of fried lentils causing me to salivate before each delicious bite. A boat trip that day, however, was not destined to be part of our near future. On the contrary, we arrived at the river to purchase our tickets only to realize we had forgotten our passports. Although we had read about this abnormal requirement the day before, we still managed to leave them back in our room, forcing us to alter our plans. There was no need for pissing and moaning. We knew full well that if we weren’t meant to be on the boat that day, something better must have been waiting.
A shorter half day trip to Sagaing and Mingun would provide most likely an even greater experience than being grouped together with other tourists, beginning with a quick stop at a gold leaf factory before leaving the city. Of course we could easily tell this particular shop was designed to draw in tourists, complete with a multitude of souvenirs on display. Even so, it was hard not to appreciate the opportunity to watch women sorting the thin pieces of gold less sturdy than a piece of paper and the men hard at work driving a primitive, handmade sledge hammer onto a thick stack of papers resembling a small book with bits of gold secured between each page. Every connecting blow spread the small nugget thinner and thinner until hours of hard work produced the final outcome. There were no fancy machines engineered to mass produce the only product suitable to decorate the images of Buddha, only the chorus of men harboring all their strength and stamina to continue their day’s work.
We stepped back into the bed of the pickup truck we had hired for the day, resting on the simple bench seats lining each side with a covered roof to protect passengers from the scorching sun. Another sight within the city had peeked our curiosity as well, Mahamuni Paya; the famed Buddha statue that religiously received a 4am face washing and shining out of deep respect. Although we wouldn’t be manually pulling our eyelids apart well before sunrise to witness the event, we would still be fortunate enough to interact with pilgrims visiting the holy temple. Layers of gold leaf consistently thickened the decorations attached to the rest of Buddha’s body. As we walked slowly around the main area of the sacred temple, Jessie continued to draw attention from the locals around her. Teenage girls too shy to approach her became easily excited when Jessie offered to take a picture with them. Men, women and children seized the opportunity to capture the same moment whenever possible, much to her delight. If it were up to her, it’s likely we would have spent our entire day immersed in the small crowds of visitors, each direction allowing us a view of another person seeking a smile of acknowledgment.
It wasn’t the first time we had ventured through a country full of curious stares, but there was something significantly unique about the people we came into contact with. We had posed for pictures with locals and gone out of our way to extend every bit of kindness available to us in many countries, yet the sensation we felt while being put on display felt oddly unfamiliar. There was a certain genuine innocence accompanying each interaction. Never had we felt so attracted to one culture, and we were just getting started.
Both Sagaing and Mingun were small towns we would come to appreciate. With impressive views from towering temples it was difficult not to, but for us, the true magic lied at the river where the famous U Bein bridge in Amarapura stretched over the murky water. Carefully we walked along the wooden bridge, swaying slightly in response to the amount of footsteps around us. Half way across the bridge we came upon a staircase leading down to a dry patch of land uncovered by the wide river due to the presence of the dry season. A small amount of tables and chairs lined the river’s edge in front of two small buildings selling drinks and snacks just in time for sunset. The sun continued to sink on the horizon, transforming from a brilliance too difficult to stare at into a red orange ball of light dimmed by the haze in the sky. We could only remain silent as we gazed at the beauty before us, doing our very best to fully enjoy the perfect end to our productive day.
I found it nearly impossible to believe I could be so exhausted from a simple day out exploring. Newborn babies might not sleep as hard as I did that evening, interrupted only when Jessie’s foot connected with my leg to discourage my warthog-like snoring echoing through the room. But before drifting into a deep sleep on our last night in Mandalay, I began to reflect on our first impression of Myanmar. We had only spent four days in the country and already we wanted to come back on our next trip to Asia. I thought to myself, if ever there was a country where the true meaning of Namaste existed, surely it’s in Myanmar where the eyes of every passerby look deep within your soul, hoping to see the same kindness and happiness demonstrated by the locals each and every day.